FAMILY - by Dr Bruce C. HafenNews Weekly
Women and civilisation
, January 15, 2000
At the World Congress of Families II held last November in Geneva, Dr Bruce Hafen argued that women are the agents of civilisation.
We are now living through the biggest change in attitudes and laws about the family in five centuries. Writing recently in the Atlantic Monthly, Frances Fukyama regards today's family disintegration as a central part of what he calls 'the Great Disruption', a wave of history as significant as the shift from the age of agriculture to the industrial revolution. Essentially, people have become sceptical about the very idea of 'belonging' to a family. After centuries of seeing family bonds as valuable ties that bind, people now see those ties as sheer bondage.
What is happening to us? Broad scale forces are eroding our foundations of personal peace, love, and human attachments. Whatever held mother-father and child-parent relationships together suddenly feels weaker now. This strange disruption feels like an ecological disaster, as if a vital organism in the environment is disappearing.
Patricia Holland has said, 'If I wanted to destroy society, I would launch an all-out blitz on women.'
What did she mean?
Men and women share all of the common traits of human nature and often perform the same tasks. But some of their strengths are gender-specific. And we are losing what women have traditionally contributed to cultural cohesiveness. Like the mortar that keeps a brick wall from toppling over, women have held together our most precious relationshipsÐour marriages and child-parent ties. But now we're seeing cracks in that mortar, which reveals some things we have too long taken for granted.
Women have always impacted entire cultures. Their influence begins in each society's very core - the home, where women have always taught and modelled what Tocqueville called 'the habits of the heart' - the mores, or civilising habits, that create a sense of personal and civic virtue, without which free and open societies can't exist.
Consider now four ways in which modern society has begun to devalue female nurturing. Seeing more clearly what we're losing will help us regain it.
For most of Western history, the very word 'motherhood' meant honour, endearment, and sacrifice.
Victor Hugo wrote, 'She broke the bread into two fragments and gave them to her children, who ate with eagerness. 'She hath kept none for herself,' grumbled the sergeant. 'Because she is not hungry,' said a soldier. 'No,' said the sergeant, 'because she is a mother'.' Yet this spirit of self-sacrifice has become a contentious issue in recent years, thus making contentious the very idea of motherhood.
For example, a recent feminist essay entitled, 'The Problem of Mothering', tells us that, 'Explorations of women's oppression [look at] the social assignment of mothering to women [because] women's oppression is in some way connected to mothering.' Others have attacked the sacrificing mother whose selflessness has allowed and even encouraged male domination. In Damned Whores and God's Police, Anne Summers argues that stereotyping the motherly role forces women to accept a sexist 'division of labor in every area of existence, most especially in family relationships.'
These critics do have a point, but they have swung the pendulum too far. As Newsweek magazine reported a few years ago, the radical feminist critique has 'sometimes crossed the line into outright contempt for motherhood.' Still, at its best, feminist criticism is justified against those who have exploited women's willingness to accept the relentless demands of motherhood. And some women in the past did feel undue social pressure to conform to overly rigid roles that denied women's sense of self.
If being 'selfless' means a woman must give up her own inner identity and personal growth, that understanding of selflessness is wrong. That was a weakness in some versions of the Victorian model of motherhood, which viewed women as excessively dependent on their husbands. But today's liberationist model goes too far the other way, stereotyping women as excessively independent of their families.
The critics who moved mothers from dependence to independence skipped the fertile middle ground of interdependence. Those who moved mothers from selflessness to selfishness skipped the fertile middle ground of self-chosen service that contributes toward a woman's personal growth. Because of these excesses, debates about the value of motherhood have, ironically, caused the general society to discount not only mothers but women in general.
In an essay called, 'Despising Our Mothers, Despising Ourselves,' Orania Papazoglou found that, despite many victories for women in the last 30 years, the self-respect of American women is at an all time low. Why? Because we've experienced not just a revolt against men's oppression, but a revolt against women: 'Heroic women who dedicated their lives to the welfare and education of children, as mothers, teachers, nurses, social workers, have been marginalised and devalued, made to feel stupid and second rate because they [took] seriously the Judeo-Christian precept that it was better to do for others than for oneself.' Devaluing motherhood devalues 'everything else women do.' When society devalues 'the primary work of most women throughout history,' we tell women 'that it is really women who' aren't worth serious consideration.
Then what happens? Society's bricks begin to collapse. Consider the unprecedented appearance of child brutality.
American schools have recently witnessed several cases of children shooting other children, something the world has never seen before. The forerunner to these events was the world-shocking 1993 British case of James Bulger, where two ten-year-old boys murdered a two-year-old child.
Some British researchers were so stunned by the Bulger case that they probed how children learn the difference between right and wrong. They found that a child's ethical sense emerges emotionally long before it emerges rationally. Thus the orientation of a child's conscience begins with its earliest relationship with its mother.
A child is an echo chamber. If he hears the sounds of love from his mother, he will later speak those same sounds of love to others. But if the mother's signals are confusing and hateful, the child will later feel confused and hateful. Whether a mother feels support from her husband, her family, and her society profoundly influences whether she feels like a mother of hope - who values herself enough to nurture a child of hope with the milk of human kindness. And children of hope create a society of hope.
A second area in which social devaluation is endangering the species gift of women is that of sexual behavior. The keystone of the archway to sexual fidelity was historically the intuitive sexual self-control of women. Most women's sexuality reflects an inner moral compass that can point true north, like a natural magnet. Of course, just as a natural magnet can lose its power through damage or trauma, women can also lose their natural moral magnetism. And many men have demonstrated the capacity for moral self-direction. But throughout history, women have tended to be society's primary teachers of sexual mores.
Women have too long endured the unfairness of a cultural 'double standard' that tolerated promiscuity in men while condemning it in women.
Sociologist David Popenoe writes that 'men the world over are more sexually driven and 'promiscuous,' while women are more concerned with lasting relationships.' Moreover, he says, 'men are universally expected to initiate sex, while women are expected to set limits on the extent of sexual intimacy.' As another researcher put it, 'Among all peoples, everywhere in the world, it is understood that the male is more likely than the female to desire sexual relations with a variety of partners.'
A double standard that winks at this male tendency enough to excuse it is unequal and, hence, unfair. Society might have responded to this inequality by demanding sexual fidelity of men. But instead, our generation romped into history's most staggering sexual revolution, seeking male/female equality by encouraging women to imitate the habitual promiscuity of men. This unprecedented combination of sexual liberation and women's liberation has, with incredible irony, now liberated men - not only from a sexual conscience, but also from the sense of family responsibility that women's higher sexual standards once demanded of men. And the biggest losers in this process are, sadly, children and women - the women who have lost their former power to demand lasting commitments from their children's fathers.
Despite the apparent unfairness of the double standard, our concept of marriage made serious demands of men. Men are simply not as 'biologically attuned to being committed fathers as women are to being committed mothers.' That is why George Gilder defined 'civilisation' as the time when men began learning from their women to care about their children.
Marriage was our culture's answer to this crucial need, because it taught men to provide for and protect their families. But our current culture of divorce shows us that Margaret Mead was right: because male commitment tends to be a learned behavior, it 'is fragile and can disappear' when the culture no longer expects or teaches it. Thus, said Mead, men won't stay married in any society unless they are culturally required to do so.
By expecting men to marry, our culture sent men a message that controlled the damage of the double standard. But in the rush toward women's sexual liberation, we seem no longer to expect men to marry. Thus we've given up not only the double sexual standard, but also the power of marriage to tame the male wanderlust. And the losers in this hasty bargaining were not men, but women - and even more so, children.
This brings us to the third area of devaluation: we have stopped prizing women's innate yearning for permanent marriage bonds. Ours is becoming an anti-marriage culture that literally throws out our babies with the bathwater of resentment toward the very idea of marital commitment. The social wreckage produced by today's confusion about sex, women, men, and marriage is well-known. Rates of divorce and illegitimacy have been raging out of control for years, with nearly a third of all American children now born out of wedlock, and over 50% of all new marriages expected to end in divorce. And many adults have essentially abandoned their children by 'liberating' them from parental commitments.
After surveying the gale-force damage to children in this messy scene, David Popenoe has concluded that our only hope today is what he calls 'the female predisposition toward permanent pair bonding.' That phrase sounds like a sociologist, doesn't it. What is he talking about?
One short answer to that question is in a terse phrase that most young women once uttered with forceful moral authority when first propositioned by a young man: 'Not until you marry me.' A more complete answer may be found in new evidence that women have innate qualities that differ from men's. One of these attitudes is women's stronger preference for permanent pair bonding. According to Popenoe, 'Women, who can bear only a limited number of children,' and who must nurture them through lengthy gestation and dependency, 'have a great [biologically ingrained] incentive to invest their energy in rearing [their] children, while men, who can father innumerable offspring, do not.' And especially because of the demands of childrearing during a child's early years, women traditionally managed to find ways to keep their children's father nearby for long term protection and support.
Because women invest themselves so completely in their offspring, they also exhibit greater selectivity in their choice of mates, meaning they want a mate who is committed enough to their children that he will stay with them for the long term. This same female instinct, with the social benefits that flow from raising secure and healthy children, has led women and civilised cultures to find ways of enticing fathers to share the yoke of family responsibility with mothers, primarily through the bonds of marriage.
The chain of being that moves from a mother of hope to a child of hope to a society of hope gives society an enormous interest in permanent pair bonding. Thus the woman's greater desire for marital permanence really is the mortar holding together the bricks of social stability. Wendell Berry wrote, 'Marriage [is] not just a bond between two people but a bond between those two people and ... their children, and their neighbors.' When this bond weakens, we face 'an epidemic of divorce, neglect, community ruin, and loneliness.' That is why 'lovers must not ... live for themselves alone. They must turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community ... The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to Heaven and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity.'
The core of this connection is the female predisposition toward permanent pair bonding. When that core is secure, a wife stands at the center of moral gravity for her family's universe, holding her husband close with the gravitational pull of a natural magnet. When he moves to the perimeter of the home and community to guard and to sustain his family, he is like a falcon and she is his falconer. If he strays too far, he will no longer hear her voice, ever calling him home.
The distinguished psychiatrist David Gutmann has found that in all successful human societies, fathers have been 'creatures of the perimeter' who provide for and protect their families while mothers nurture young children. 'Strong mothers build secure homes; fathers and father's sons maintain secure neighborhoods.'
Ideally, mothers first nurture children's feelings about right and wrong, then fathers teach them the law of the family and community. This places fathers and other men into disciplinary roles that teach sons with loving firmness to separate psychologically from their mothers until they internalise community norms within their own conscience. By this process, young men transform their aggression and resentment of authority into a conscience-based sense of duty to protect and provide for their family and community. Then they can form their own homes as mature husbands, rather than childishly needing wives who behave like mothers.
There is a fourth category of women's contributions - women have a gift for nurturing all human relationships. Recent research shows that women will often sacrifice an achievement for the sake of a relationship, but men will more likely sacrifice a relationship for the sake of an achievement.
Other studies tell us that the much cliched 'feminine intuition' that values human relationships is clearly of genetic origin, showing up in females more than males. And women's capacity to develop and nurture personal relationships is needed in all intersections of community activity. For example, a British economist recently praised this female strength as an asset in the economy of the future, with its emphasis on personal networks.
Consider now, in summary, a true story from Australian history that illustrates the power of women's moral influence as mothers of hope, women of fidelity, wives of commitment, and nurturers of human ties. In its early decades as a British colony, Australia was a vast wilderness designated as a jail for exiled convicts. Until 1850, six of every seven people who went 'down under' from Britain were men. And the few women who went were often convicts or social outcasts themselves. The men ruthlessly exploited them, sexually and in other ways. With few exceptions, these women without hope were powerless to change their conditions.
In about 1840, a reformer named Caroline Chisholm urged that more women would stabilise the culture. She told the British government the best way to establish a community of 'great and good people' in Australia: 'For all the clergy you can dispatch, all the schoolmasters you can appoint, all the churches you can build, and all the books you can export, will never do much good without ... 'God's police'- wives and little children - good and virtuous women.'
Chisholm searched for women who would raise 'the moral standard of the people.' She spent twenty years travelling to England, recruiting young women and young couples who believed in the common sense principles of family life. Over time, these women tamed the men who were taming the wild land; and civil society in Australia gradually emerged. Also, the colonial governments enacted policies that elevated women's status and reinforced family life. As Anne Summers noted, 'The initial reluctance of the wild colonial boys to marry was eroded fairly quickly.' Eventually, thousands of new immigrants who shared the vision of these 'good and virtuous women' established stable families as the basic unit of Australian society more quickly than had occurred 'anywhere else in the Western world.'
Most radical feminists would reject for today's society the concept that women are civilising agents. They resist this concept because they believe that acknowledging any inherent differences between men and women will lead to negative gender discrimination that will somehow place women in subservient roles. However, the evidence shows that, despite many similarities, men and women do differ innately in some crucial ways. Hence the title of one popularised book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
Psychologist Carol Gilligan's 1982 book shows how women and men perceive the same things in different ways, and they speak in a different voice from one another. Gilligan found that women possess an ethic of care that is inherently stronger then men's. If society can value and encourage this gender gift without allowing it to cause discrimination against women, we just might experience, as Australian Anne Summers put it, 'a genuine breakthrough in our thinking about the qualities contemporary society now has the greatest need for.'
The women's rights movements of recent years opened many valuable doors to women and pricked the conscience of many men who had exploited women's willingness to give their bread to others and keep none for themselves. But the gender equity pendulum of the past era has moved our attitudes too far, devaluing and damaging the culture's support for motherhood, sexual fidelity, marriage, and women's distinctive voices.
It is now time to swing the pendulum of attitude back to magnetic north, the point in the compass that will nurture our children and the future society with the milk of human kindness. Surely society can restore the confidence of today's women in their own instincts without coercing them into being non-entities. Surely we can invite men to emulate the ethic of care they see in their mothers, their wives, and their daughters. We have already learned the hard way that women, children, and the entire culture are worse off when we seek gender equality by encouraging women to adopt permissive male lifestyles.Dr Bruce C. Hafen was Dean of the Law School at Brigham Young University, USA